The list of Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants, as decided by an extensive panel of well-known chefs, journalists, and other in-the-know business representatives was recently announced, which no doubt caught the attention of chefs around the country and whetted the curiosities of countless foodies who want to stimulate their palates in new and exciting ways. Toronto has certainly a lot to be excited about, with the French restaurant Alo moving up to the coveted first place and the 1920’s art deco, visual styling at Lena gaining recognition with an award for Best Restaurant Design. But midst other awards and rankings, one thing continues to be undoubtedly clear: that the Buca restaurant empire, with Chef Rob Gentile at the helm, is still widely considered as the high watermark of quality for Italian cuisine nationwide. Since the list began three years ago, both Buca locations, at 604 King Street and 53 Scollard, have been regular fixtures and Bar Buca at 75 Portland also received some love. Buca Yorkville and Buca on King placed 7th and 16th respectively on this year’s Canada’s 100 Best list. With such rumblings in the culinary scene, it would be foolish not to satiate one’s craving for a traditional yet adventurous Italian dinner there.
For those who have yet to go, the three locations vary in menu: the King West location has the most traditional selection of meat, pizza, and pasta dishes, and the Bar Buca location is of the smaller, snack-variety. The 53 Scollard location, Buca Osteria & Bar, is where you want to go for some intriguing and innovative seafood dishes. Its innovations are likely what placed the Yorkville location at the higher ranking, as my visit felt like a lesson in crafting deceptively simple but interestingly structured offerings. At the bar, waiting for the dishes to arrive, I asked one of the bartenders if they noticed a rise in business since the release of the list, to which they said they haven’t, as it’s always pretty busy there — the reason for which I was about to discover.
I started with an appetizer, the Carciofi ($11). These are large artichokes slightly braised in olive oil with parmigiano reggiano sprinkled on top — which has a taste similar to the strong, bitter flavour of a grana padano — along with a hint of lemon. A very nice way to begin the meal: the outer layer of the artichoke tastes as though it was lightly fried and seasoned; the taste from the dusting of the cheese stays constant throughout, providing a nice balance with the juicy interior of the artichoke and the citrusy tinge at the end. Now, onto the main attraction.
Feeling obliged to try a pasta dish, as I assume that’s what most people would gravitate towards if they’re in the mood for Italian food, I go for what looks to me like the stand-out dish — the Calamarata Al Nero Di Seppia ($26). The dish comprises of calamari rings and calamari noodles, which are covered in a black squid ink sauce and topped with a gremolota made with lemon zest, breadcrumbs, and spices. Admittedly, presentation is not something that typically sways my level of intrigue regarding food in general, but I must admit, I did find this dish surprisingly pretty — the black ink sauce gives the calamari a nice sheen, allowing the colour of the light green gremolota to really pop. But looks aren’t everything, and fortunately this dish did stimulate my palette in ways that really made me appreciate the layers of tastes. The gremolata offers a strong but not overpowering spicy kick to the dish that lingers after every bite, resulting in — similar to the carciofi — a taste that comes full circle. One gets the initial kick, followed by the pasta and calamari. The ink sauce certainly enhances the taste of the pasta and calamari very well due to the mushrooms cooked into the sauce for a robust flavour. They’re quickly followed by the second, finishing sensation of the gremolota. Also, this is a fairly light pasta dish — I suspect due to the seemingly equal-ratio of noodles to calamari — that will put your appetite at the right level of satisfied, without any unwanted carb fatigue following it — which is good for me, considering that there was a fairly new addition to the dessert menu that came with a pretty high recommendation from the bartender.
My final dish of the evening was the Torta Di Polenta ($14). This is a light sponge cake made with cornmeal, served with cranberries and a light cranberry sauce on top. Atop of the cake and cranberries also sits a light cracker made from goat cheese, and surrounding the whole thing is a trail of goat’s milk. Yet another dish that looks so meticulously presented that you kind of want to Instagram it, but you’re afraid of looking weird so, instead, you just dive right in. This dessert is interestingly layered. By cutting into it, the cranberry sauce mixes with the goat’s milk, which are both slowly absorbed by the cake, resulting in a series of ever richer bites. And I don’t know how else to describe the goat cheese cracker in any other way besides delicious.
The menu also offers a selection of assorted fish that you can pick and choose from, which are then served on a platter, as well as caviar options. So at this point it probably goes without saying: if you’re feeling special, with a group of friends, going out to dinner with co-workers — like many of the patrons seemed to be doing — or maybe you’re just by yourself and want to see what all the fuss is about, you should have a very enjoyable stay at Buca Osteria & Bar.